To complement my eight fantasy picks, here are my sci-fic choices. I’m a bit eclectic when it comes to sci-fic. You won’t find anything by Heinlein, Asimov, or Niven here.
1. Dune, Frank Herbert. 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. The sequels aren’t so impressive. Only the first book makes my list.
2. The Gap Cycle, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse hell to achieve justice. No one has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane; the narrative crescendos enough to give you panic attacks. I was hyperventilating during the race to escape Thanatos Minor. Every corner of that planetoid remains burned in my mind’s eye, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I love the central character of Angus. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of free will I feel for him. The Gap Cycle is a brilliant space opera about evil authorities, and terrifying aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. I doubt I’ll read anything like it again.
3. Cluster & Chaining the Lady, Piers Anthony. 1977, 1978. No one ever talks about the Cluster trilogy anymore, and it needs rescuing from obscurity. It’s better than many of today’s sci-fic efforts and comes from a time when writers weren’t afraid to take certain risks. The premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances, safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows Anthony protagonists (Flint in Cluster, Melody in Chaining the Lady) whose perspectives on other species, including their own, change according to the aliens they possess. The first two novels are the ones that make my cut. In Cluster Flint shags his way across the Milky Way, experiencing a rich variety of alien sex, and his mission ends on a murder mystery that keeps you guessing until the reveal. In Chaining the Lady the Andromeda Galaxy acquires the capability of forced possession, and Melody must go undercover on a battle ship to find out who the involuntary hosts are before their possessors take over the Milky Way. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details.
4. Ubik, Philip Dick. 1969. Only recently have I been turned on to Philip Dick, and Ubik is his best work, set in a future where some people have a natural ability to read minds or choose the future (psychics), and others are able to thwart those telepathic or precognitive powers (anti-psis). Security firms hire the latter to protect people’s privacy, and the plot involves one of these firms coming under attack. Its CEO is killed in a bomb explosion, and his employees store his corpse in a half-life mortuary so that his consciousness can live on. The employees then start to experience bizarre shifts in reality as the world regresses back in time to the year 1939. Maybe they are the ones who actually died in the explosion and got stored into half-life, and are now dreaming terrible events as their boss tries to reach them from the real world. Or maybe both died and are feeding off each others dreams. Adding to the tension is that one of the employees has a unique anti-psi talent that doesn’t just cause psychics to choose a different future; she can actually change the future by resetting the past. Is the time regression somehow on account of her? There doesn’t seem to be a coherent explanation that accounts for any one theory, but enough patterns to make any explanation plausible until you look real closely. Ubik is a pure mind fuck, and while it may not be Dick’s most popular novel, I think he outdid himself here.
5. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline. 2011. This novel will give you an orgasm if you grew up in the ’80s playing D&D and primitive computer games, but even aside from this it has a wide range of appeal. For all the obscure pop-culture references, the plot isn’t confusing and the narrative moves like a bullet while leaving just the right breathing space for its characters. Their friendships in the virtual world feel real, because in some ways the OASIS is just as real. It’s where kids attend school online, where everyone plays games and retreats from the misery of reality. That reality is the setting of the 2040s, a future in which the earth’s energy resources and economy have all but collapsed, the vast majority of Americans are poor and live in “stacks”, vertical trailer parks where mobile homes are piled on top of each other. The quest for a Easter-Egg inside the galaxy of the OASIS carries the reward of a billionaire’s legacy, including complete control of that virtual reality. A corrupt corporation wants the control, to charge for access, and prevent people from using it anonymously, and in the race for the Egg they locate and kill others — not just avatars, but the people hiding behind them in the real world. The virtual recreation of the Tomb of Horrors is for me one of the most gratifying chapters I’ve read in a novel.
6. Hyperion-Endymion, Dan Simmons. 1989-1997. The four books are almost equally good while stylistically different. Hyperion is a Canterbury Tales-like recounting of six stories, told by each of the Shrike pilgrims. The Fall of Hyperion takes these strands and runs them into a single blistering narrative as the fabric of the universe is torn apart. Endymion picks up centuries later, in a regressed universe ruled by the Catholic church, and consists of a river chase through portals to different planets, reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. The Rise of Endymion involves the defeat of the church and a woman’s sacrifice to the Inquisition. My favorite is The Fall of Hyperion — Simmons never takes his foot off the gas in that book — but they all make this cut. I could never fully understand the Shrike, the spiked humanoid that seems to be a force for good as much as evil. He impales victims on his Tree of Pain, and gives them the “Merlin sickness” (a reverse aging process by which after being touched, every morning you wake up a day younger with no memory of the lost days nor anything that had happened since being touched; to the horror and pain of family and friends who have to explain every morning what happened to you, as you regress back to a teen to a kid to a baby). It seems to be a program designed to ensure the evolution of the AIs while also keeping them in check, and it helps people as as often as it hurts them depending on its perceived goal.
7. Dragonflight & Dragonquest, Anne McCaffrey. 1968, 1971. The Pern series devolved into a lame franchise, but the first two books are top-notch survivalist sci-fic. The plotting is tight and the writing honest, by that meaning McCaffrey portrayed believable gender roles without kneeling at the feminist altar. She also took a big risk with the dragon-rider concept, as it’s so easy to go wrong with. The Dragonlance novels in the ’80s turned dragons into the functional equivalents of war steeds — an insult to the creatures whose pride would never allow for it. Dragons accept riders only by exacting a high price from them, which in Pern is a permanent telepathic link in which rider and dragon share all their feelings and sufferings. Those feelings extend to lust, which has become something of a bone of contention among the politically correct. Dragonriders succumb to sex with each other during the mating flights of their dragons, overcome with sexual desire for each other often against their will. Lessa’s relationship with F’lar is described in terms of rape, and that’s indeed the premise. Around these dynamics, the dragonriders work against impossible odds to solve the problem of Thread, which in Dragonflight ends in Lessa’s time-travel centuries back to bring help forward, and in Dragonquest F’nor’s even more suicidal flight to the Red Star to wipe out the source of Thread itself.
8. The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold. 1973. It’s surprising how good this book is considering the skeleton narrative. It’s a novella with a single character (aside from the brief appearance of a lawyer) and has a rather staged feeling to it. But it takes on enormous themes — time travel, paradoxes, free will — as the protagonist interacts with past and future versions of himself. And it’s a love story at heart, as the man falls in love with himself in various time streams. He starts as most people would do if they suddenly acquired a time-traveling device: betting on sports events he already knows the outcome to, making himself a millionaire. But as he becomes gradually bored by wealth, he decides that he wants to have sex with his past and future selves, including mass orgies with himselves from different time streams. Eventually, as he changes events in so many time streams he creates a female version of himself, with whom he has a child. It turns out to be a very powerful narrative of a man searching for self and meaning, not to mention coming to terms with his homoerotic desires, which in 1973 was an unusual move in a novel. I was once asked the five things I would do if I could go back in time, and indeed the two at the top of my list were to make more money for myself, and to bang myself.